Uranium: A new issue for Coal Ash Ponds and Coal Combustion Residue?

3 Apr

Coal Combustion Residues (CCR) have received a lot of bad press over the past few years, despite many beneficial uses, and it may be getting worse.  CCR covers the variety of by-products from coal burning electric utilities, including flue gas desulfurization, coal slag, bottom ash and fly ash.  CCR is often beneficially reused.  For example, CCR can be added to concrete, simultaneously creating a more durable product and reducing the amount of Portland cement required.  This is environmentally beneficial because 1) the product is more durable, 2) the CCR does not have to be disposed of in a landfill or impoundment, and 3) less Portland cement, the production of which has negative impacts on the environment, is needed.  Likewise, FGD gypsum, which is generated from the scrubbing process at coal-fired power plants, can be used in lieu of naturally occuring rock gypsm for drywall.  In fact, over half of the drywall in the US is made this way, again saving disposal space.  Unfortunately, not all CCR is beneficially reused and much of it is diposed as a solid or as a slurry in an impoundment.

The disposal practices for CCR, especially in slurry impoundments, have come under increasing scrutiny because of several accidents over the past few years. The most notorious event occured on December 22, 2008, when a CCR surface impoundment was breached at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee which released 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash.  The spill covered over 300 acres, impacted over two dozen residences, and TVA estimated the cleanup will cost in the range of one billion dollars.  EPA has worked to determine which surface impoundments pose the greatest threat and published a report in the summer of 2009.

A second issue, albeit one that garnered less press, with CCR disposal has revolved around the potential for ground water contamination.  CCRs can contain several heavy metals such as asenic, selenium, cadmium, lead, and mercury.  While these metals are present in low concentrations, impoundments contain such a large volume of CCR that the mass balance of these metals arguably can be significant.  In addition, most of these impoundments are unlined and, thus, increase the likelihood that these metals will enter the groundwater.  In order to address this issue, EPA’s proposed rule for CCR include liner and monitoring requirements.  That rule will not be finalized until 2013 and most likely wouldn’t be fully implemented for several years after that.

A recent CNN.com article (Read the CNN.com article here) raises the specter that Uranium groundwater contamination may be another risk posed byCCR surface impoundments and is an excellent example of the potential negative press and legal exposure that a utility can receive because of a surface impoundment.  In this case the Georgia Power Plant Schere maintains a 900-acre impoundment and the residences in the area rely upon well water.  According to the article, the residents are experiencing a variety of ailments and cancers.  Testing has indicated that many of their wells contain high levels of uranium.  Furthermore, the article alleges that coal ash has been documented as having significant levels of uranium (a fact which I am attempting to, but as of this moment have not, verified).  A direct cause-and-effect has not been established between the surface impoundment and the residents’ illnesses, and the article notes that EPA believes a naturally occuring source of Uranium may be the source for the wells.  Nevertheless, the mere presence of the surface impoundment has raised the issue.

If you have any questions regarding coal combustion residues, contact us at 773-609-5320, [email protected], or through our web contact form.

Disclaimer: This article cannot, and does not, create any attorney/client or consultant/client relationship.

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